Boston bombings bring fear back to the forefront

The last time I flew to Beijing from the U.S., I had to pass through a full-body scanner at an airport security checkpoint in Louisville, Kentucky. One of the people in front of me was an elderly man in a wheelchair.

When his turn came, two security officers helped him to his feet and guided him into the machine. “Can you stand on your own?” one of the officers asked.

“I think so,” the man said.

He kept his arms raised long enough for the machine to take an image of his body and then, with the help of the security officers, returned to his wheelchair. Continue reading

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The heart of Ox Street

Many of China’s temples and churches were wrecked during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when communist leaders encouraged young students and workers to destroy symbols of “old China.”

Fortunately for preservationists, Beijing’s Niujie Mosque survived. The mosque was built in 996, during the Liao Dynasty (907-1125), and is the oldest temple in the capital. It’s even older than the Forbidden City imperial palace, which began construction in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Continue reading

If you could talk to a gunman

Whenever a mass shooting like the one in Connecticut occurs, there’s always a group of Americans who argue that the tragedy could have been prevented if someone besides the shooter had been armed.

It’s a flawed argument. Even if an employee at the elementary school had had a gun – a teacher, for example – Adam Lanza had more and better weapons, was protected by body armor and was ready to die rather than surrender.

It’s certainly possible an armed teacher, in the right place at the right time, could have stopped Lanza. But that sort of Hollywood ending isn’t likely. Shootouts are almost always messy, even when professionals, such as police officers, are involved. Continue reading

North Korea’s Kim: Too sexy to be true?

The death of North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il last December set off a period of mourning unlike anything I had ever seen.

The footage broadcast by the country’s state-run media showed tens of thousands of people in the capital Pyongyang, weeping and buckling over in grief. Women fainted, and even grown men sobbed uncontrollably. A New Year editorial published by the North’s leading newspapers called Kim’s death “the greatest loss our nation had suffered in its 5,000-year-long history and the bitterest grief our Party and people had experienced … The tears our service personnel and people shed with greatest sorrow were tears of the unity, unaffected and crystal-clear, and tears of their firm determination to follow the Party to the end of the earth.”

A few days after Kim’s death, I met with my Chinese teacher Cathy for our twice-a-week language lesson. Cathy is in her mid-40s and has lived in Beijing her entire life. Some days we choose a topic to discuss, and on this day we decided to talk about international news.

“What do you think about Kim Jong-il’s death?” I asked. Continue reading

Knowing when to say give

As tourists file into the Yonghe Lama Temple, a woman carrying a gray sack stops near the entrance and gets down on her knees.

She bows, lowering her head so close to the ground that her shoulder-length hair hangs inches from the concrete. Still hunched over, she extends her hands, palms up, toward a plastic bowl in front of her body. The bowl is filled with coins and a few yuan bills.

Most people walk past the woman without looking down, pausing only to snap a few pictures of a historic arch outside the temple – a Buddhist monastery that is one of Beijing’s most visited tourist attractions. Continue reading

Sometimes I get the red, white and blues

On June 12, the US Embassy in Beijing sent out an e-mail warning Americans to be careful at nightclubs in Beijing. It said that an embassy employee was attacked by a group of Chinese on June 9 at a club near Workers Stadium, a popular bar area and expat hangout.

“The employee, who was out with some colleagues, was hit in the head with a sharp object as he was dancing away from the group,” the e-mail said. “According to witnesses, the employee fell to the floor and was repeatedly beaten and kicked in the head by individuals serving as bouncers for the nightclub. By all accounts, the attack was unprovoked.”

Workers Stadium in Beijing. The US Embassy said one of their employees was attacked at a nightclub on the west side of the stadium. (Photo by Jason Walsh via Wikipedia)

The attack wasn’t the first targeting US citizens, the embassy said, adding that “maintaining an awareness of your surroundings and keeping a low profile are critical to avoiding potential problems.”

Asking a foreigner in Beijing – especially those who look and sound very different from the Chinese – to keep a low profile is a bit like asking a cricket marching in a pack of ants to blend in. It’s just not going to happen. Foreigners make up less than 1 percent of the city’s 20 million residents. We stand out wherever we go. Sometimes that’s a good thing, and sometimes it’s not. Continue reading

In China, a 75-year-old war wound is still bleeding

When I was a boy, I liked to argue with adults about history. I’d ask questions that are impossible to answer, like whether the United States would have become a superpower if the South had won the Civil War, or whether we’d all be speaking a different language if the Allied forces hadn’t defeated Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

I formed my own opinions too, mostly based on facts I learned at school. One of the more heated debates I had was with my grandfather, a Korean War veteran. I told him I thought the U.S. was wrong to drop atomic bombs on Japan during World War II.

He said the bombing was necessary to end the war, and that I didn’t understand how brutal the Japanese soldiers were. But what about all the innocent people in Nagasaki and Hiroshima killed by the bombs, I asked. What did they do to deserve to die?

It was the only way to end the war, he repeated. Continue reading